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Inside Iraq's political stalemate

With political leaders deadlocked, political change in Baghdad doesn't seem likely to happen any time soon.
Last modified: 8 Jul 2014 20:47

It was the Iraqi prime minister himself who set the tone. "Soon we will overcome our challenges," he said the day after the opening session of parliament dissolved into a messy ‎shouting match in which all sides seemed to blame each other for failures of, well, each other.

A new date, July 8, was set for parliament to convene. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seemed confident. Then late in the evening of July 7 there was an announcement that July 8 was no longer feasible, it would be postponed another week. Again it was postponed until August. ‎Then another announcement that actually parliament would meet on July 13. This all happened in the space of few hours with state television channel Al-Iraqiya disseminating the news. I watched the to-ing and fro-ing with veteran Iraqi journalist Bassim Muhiy.

He wasn't impressed. "Akh, these people. These politicians can't agree on anything, and because they can't they will argue like this for months and the people will suffer."

There is a precedent for Bassim's thinking. After the 2010 election it took nearly six months to form a government. To put this into perspective, the election took place on April 30. You can understand Bassim's pessimism.

This time the stakes are higher than ever before. Iraq is fighting a war that threatens to split it apart, and the longer the politicians bicker, the more entrenched the Islamic State group and the other Sunni rebels become.

Opposition to al-Maliki

But why is it taking so long? One of the reasons is the intense opposition to Prime Minister al-Maliki, even from the Sunni leaders who want to fight but won't until they see change, political change in Baghdad.

Speaking to my colleague Zeina Khodr, one of the key Sunni leaders said, "We won't fight on behalf of the Americans or the Iraqi government."

Most are in agreement that if you want to win against the Sunni rebels, then the Sunni tribes are key, and at the moment they aren't in the mood to help a government that they blame for ignoring them, playing sectarian politics and therefore allowing Sunni anger to turn into Sunni revolution.

But the political ‎stalemate isn't just sectarian. It's also nationalistic. Even the Shia politicians, natural allies of the Prime Minister, criticise the government and a desire for change. ‎Muqtada al-Sadr, a key Shia cleric has publicly critisised the prime minister and has said that he wanted "new faces" in power. The Sunni rebel groups aren't looking for a caliphate. They want Iraq, and a new leader in Baghdad.

Diplomatic efforts 

The delay in forming a government has also concerned the international community. Backstage there have been frantic diplomatic efforts to try and push through the stalemate and get Iraqis to begin the political process. Diplomats close to the talks have told me that this has involved meeting with all parties and sending the message that only a political solution will get them out of the crisis.

The UN in Iraq has been particularly vocal, with head of the assistance mission, Nikolay Mladenov, telling me that the politicians need to "undertake all necessary and constitutionally-orientated steps in order to initiate a political process, the only aim should be to restore political and legal order as well as to guarantee security of the Iraqi citizens".

It would be all too easy to blame the current political stalemate on al-Maliki. The truth is, as it nearly always is, not that simple. The prime minister's party won the popular vote in the April election. He has support. But Iraqi politics isn't just about popularity among the electorate, it is also a game of coalition building with other political blocs.

Right now the real reason behind the delay in forming the government isn't Maliki. It is coalition building and political dealing.

This mix of nationalism, sectarianism, religious rhetoric combined with ‎deal making and self-interest is a powerful force, and not necessarily one that is easy to manage. So while every lawmaker is looking to see what deal can be made, Iraq remains stuck in political first gear with little hope of a quick fix.